Blood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness in the West (1985)

Critics have compared Cormac McCarthy’s nightmarish yet beautifully written adventure masterpiece, Blood Meridian: Or The Evening Redness in the West, with the best works of Dante, Poe, De Sade, Melville, Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and William Styron. The critic Harold Bloom, among others, has declared it one of the greatest novels of the Twentieth Century, and perhaps the greatest by a living American writer. Critics cite its magnificent language, its uncompromising representation of a crucial period of American history, and its unapologetic, bleak vision of the inevitability of suffering and violence.

The novel recounts the adventures of a young runaway, the kid, who stumbles into the company of the Glanton Gang, outlaws and scalp-hunters who cleared Indians from the Texas-Mexico borderlands during the late 1840′s under contract to territorial governors. Reinvisioning the ideology of manifest destiny upon which the American dream was founded, Blood Meridian depicts the borderland between knowledge and power, between progress and dehumanization, between history and myth and, most importantly, between physical violence and the violence of language.

Blood Meridian is not for the faint-hearted, requiring of its readers (as of its characters) an initiation to the grim but often funny business of desacralization, especially of sacred cows. McCarthy dismantles the politically correct myth of aboriginal victimization, so that victims and their antagonists become indistinguishable. In one celebrated scene, a column of mercenaries the kid has joined encounters a Comanche war party herding stolen horses and cattle across the desert. The kid barely escapes as the Indians, still vividly dressed like eldritch clowns in the garments they have stripped from their last white victims, annihilate his companions.

But the kid’s real initiation occurs at a revival meeting in the east Texas town of Nacogdoches, located nearly upon the 98th Meridian identified by historian Frederick Jackson Turner as the boundary between Frontier and Wilderness, perhaps the very “Blood Meridian” of the title. There the kid encounters Judge Holden, a monstrous being who recalls Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, Melville’s Ahab, and Milton’s Satan, and who is a figure without parallel in American literature. Holden seems to have been everywhere, and to know everything from European and native languages to the latest sciences. Simultaneously huge and delicately pale, ancient and childlike, the Judge is an accomplished fiddler and light and nimble dancer, but he is also a compulsive child molester and killer, the true south of the moral compass.

McCarthy’s iconoclasm reaches even to the earth’s very elements. He finds in them, contrary to another modern mythology of a pristine world sullied by men, an extension, if not the origin, of our evil complicities. A manifestation of this natural evil, Holden is obsessed with the natural world, drawing and inscribing plants, animals and objects in his mysterious notebook, only to destroy his models in order to “erase them from the memory of men.”

The Glanton Gang’s erasure of Indians is in turn satirized by the way the gang itself forms a clan around the bizarre “totem” of the judge, their philosopher of violence who declares, “If war is not holy, man is nothing but antic clay.” Manipulating the gang with guile, intimidation, and fear, the judge leads them into a series of progressively more disastrous encounters with Indians and the troops of their Mexican employers alike until only he and the kid remain to play out what has become a horrifying game of survival. McCarthy ruthlessly parodies Heroic Quest and traditional coming-of-age tales, as the transformation of the frontier turns out to be nothing more than its eventual purification for sacrifice to what the judge represents. Of this event McCarthy shows us little but forces us to imagine it in all of its obscenity. Yet it is also true, as Steven Shaviro has written, that “the scariest thing about Blood Meridian is that it is a euphoric and exhilarating book, rather than a tragically alienated one, or a gloomy, depressing one. [. . .] Once we have started to dance, once we have been swept up in the game, there is no pulling back.”

The preceding précis is Copyright © 1996 by Rick Wallach.